A top U.S. census official told a National Academies' panel today that the decennial enumeration reflects an era that doesn't exist anymore—and that the 2020 census can't be done in the traditional manner.
"The idea of filling out forms and knocking on doors needs to be set aside," says Arnold Jackson, who heads the 2010 census that will be carried out next spring. "It's run its course. An intervention into people's lives is no longer an effective way to proceed."
Jackson was speaking to the first meeting of an expert panel convened by the National Research Council's Committee on National Statistics to review the 2010 census. But the panel's real purpose is to look ahead to 2020, in particular, with suggestions on how the U.S. Census Bureau could do a better job the next time around by tapping into current technologies on how data are collected and managed.
That's a tough assignment. As the mechanism for apportioning congressional districts—and billions of federal dollars linked to geographic, income, and population data—the census has always been a political football.
The cost of the census—$14 billion for the 2010 census—is becoming prohibitive, notes Rebecca Blank, undersecretary for economic affairs at the Department of Commerce, which conducts the census. And its methodology hasn't kept pace with the times, she adds: "The 2010 census looks a lot like the 1970 census," she says disapprovingly. "And we need to modernize." At the same time, Blank assured the panel that "we're on track for a very successful 2010 census."
Jackson listed several technologies—from using electronic records already in hand to targeted canvassing—that the Census Bureau would like to explore, along with a new definition of a household. And he said that winning the panel's imprimatur to study some of those methods—many of which are already in use by other countries—might win over "stakeholders" worried that any changes will pose a threat to the constitutional requirement to count everyone in the United States.